By Kate Tyler
As historian Sara Evans boxes up a lifetime of work on American social change, it's hard to imagine a better backdrop than the history-making presidential runs of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
"I did not expect I would see it in my lifetime--either a serious woman candidate or a serious African American candidate," marvels Evans, who retired from the Minnesota faculty in June. "And that we have both just knocks my socks off."
To say that Evans understands how far America has come is putting it mildly. An internationally renowned social historian, she is the author of seven groundbreaking books exploring racial conflict, identity politics, and, especially, the stories and struggles of women in the 20th century. She is also a product of the segregated South who came of age in both the civil rights and women's movements.
"I grew up in the 1940s and fifties with white-only schools and businesses, with buses where black people had to walk to the back--and I didn't know any other white kids who thought that was wrong," Evans recalls of her South Carolina childhood. That she felt seared by the racism that permeated daily life owes much to the progressive values of her parents--a "gut-level radical" mother who taught Evans and her brothers about the legacy of slavery, and a Methodist-minister father once banished to a remote pastorate for preaching against racism.
Also formative for Evans was the legacy of sexism, from overt workforce discrimination to powerful ideologies pressuring women to find fulfillment as wives and mothers. Her own mother, Evans says, "was a brilliant free spirit who should have been a botanist or a zoologist; I sensed that behind the canaries and gardens she tended was a lot of anger at choices denied."
Evans became a historian, she has written, to "spare the next generation the rage we experienced about having been cut off from our own history in all its complexity." Her intellectual passion gathered steam in the tumult of the 1960s as she saw unfolding around her a history she'd never been taught. When she enrolled in a Ph.D. program in history at the University of North Carolina, she found not a single course on women--startling to someone who had by then participated in women's liberation groups, joined Martin Luther King's historic Selma-to-Montgomery march, led Vietnam War protests, and organized clerical workers and a child-care cooperative.
Evans went on to write Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left--a landmark book on the roots of the contemporary women's movement. A breakthrough look at the intersections of gender and race, the book is credited as a founding text of the field of women's history, where it remains essential reading. "Women's history isn't about romanticizing women," Evans emphasizes. "It's about using women's experiences as a powerful lens to get at a more complete understanding of history."
In 1976, she came to Minnesota to fill one of the country's first faculty positions in women's history. In a department purposefully expanding beyond a Eurocentric curriculum, Evans hit her stride; among her books are acclaimed examinations of social justice movements and women's political participation along with a consummate analysis of how feminism has reshaped American society.
True to her activist roots, Evans also became a force for institutional change. She helped build the U's program in women's studies and found a pathbreaking feminist research center. Her reputation and leadership also spurred the growth of the U's top-flight program in comparative women's history.
"As a department, we've hired brilliant faculty, many of whom turned out to be doing women's history," says Evans. A striking contrast to the women's history wilderness Evans found in graduate school, the program today boasts a dozen experts covering women and gender worldwide.
In 1997, Evans was named a Distinguished McKnight University Professor and in 2004, a Regents Professor, the U's top honor. A catalog of her accomplishments over the years would fill many pages. Two of her proudest achievements were in highly public realms. In the mid 1990s, as head of the University's faculty governance committee and a leader in the American Association of University Professors, she led a successful fight to protect the tenure system fundamental to the tradition of academic freedom at Minnesota and all research universities. A few years later, she helped organize her colleagues to beat back a reactionary social studies curriculum proposed for Minnesota's public schools. Both experiences galvanized her commitment to "speak out to help the public understand the value of a great research university like ours," says Evans, a particularly eloquent champion of the liberal arts ("the core of the University and the heartbeat of democracy").
A frequent media commentator on women's social history and civil rights, in recent months Evans has been a go-to expert in connection with the historic Obama-Clinton contest.
"It's scary watching them spar with each other, because they're both so good, which puts us in a bind," Evans says of the two Democratic candidates. "And the race clearly has gotten complicated. I see alot of sexism in the coverage of Hillary. It's hit a nerve, particularly with older women--to see sexism coming out of the woodwork in this way really stings. And it also stings to see the issue of race used to undermine Obama. But we do need to stop and celebrate that this is the choice. It's awesome. It gives me a great deal of hope for the future."
Evans's immediate future will be less about politics and books and more about rivers and mountains. With her husband, Chuck Dayton (an environmental lawyer who helped protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness), the adventure-loving Evans is already planning trips to kayak in Greenland and hike in India.
She also plans to spend several months a year at a little house on land her parents left her in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. There, she says, surrounded by her mother's gardens, she'll continue to think and to write. "I hope to experiment with creative non-fiction," says Evans. "I've been thinking a lot about my parents' lives, and my own, and I have this feeling of being full of stories I want to tell."
In June she attended the Berkshire women's history conference, held in the Twin Cities. In honor of Evans's retirement, the national gathering featured an intergenerational panel on women's history as well as a reception sponsored by the history department.
How, one wonders, can the University possibly fill the large gap left by the retirement of one its superstars, one of the country's premier historians of women? The characteristically modest Evans smiles and looks toward the top shelf in her office, teeming with books yet to be packed off to her St. Paul home. "Those are all by my former students," she says with matter-of-fact pride. "Thirty years ago, I was the only one here doing women's history. Now we have a dozen faculty in the field, and we're raising money for an endowed chair."
"I can leave now," concludes Evans,
"because I know it all will continue."